Home Book Reviews Ball Four by Jim Bouton

Ball Four by Jim Bouton

by Matt Smith

Ball Four by Jim Bouton (Wiley, 1990), 472 pages.

In recent times, Michael Lewis’s Moneyball prompted a sizeable backlash from the baseball establishment, yet that reaction was nothing compared to the shock, horror, anger and bitterness that raged upon the publication of Ball Four in 1970.

Jim Bouton was an outspoken relief pitcher who decided to keep a daily diary of his 1969 season, beginning with the expansion Seattle Pilots and ending with the Houston Astros. Such projects are so common nowadays that the concept would be met with ambivalence. Not so In 1970. This was an era when the general public’s perception of baseball players was the “milk and cookies” version that the baseball establishment wanted them to believe; where MLB clubhouses were branded with signs stating: “What you say here, what you do here, let it stay here, when you leave here”. Bouton wasn’t breaking an unspoken rule, he was directly flouting the law of the clubhouse.

As such, he became public enemy number one within the baseball establishment, while gaining heroic status among baseball fans. Indeed, the reaction from within the professional ranks served to enhance Bouton’s reputation as a renegade and was pure publicity gold. Ball Four quickly gained legendary status and that position is undiminished even today. While the ‘shock’ of reading about the players’ off-field activities might be lessened for someone picking up the book in 2008, its main quality will always stand the test of time. Ball Four provides an endless stream of hilarious stories that will have you howling with laughter.

It’s precisely this point that makes the book so engrossing. A day-by-day account of a long MLB season could quite easily slip into repetitive drudgery. ‘Went to the ballpark, pitched to four batters, the team lost. Next day, didn’t pitch, we won in extra innings etc’. Ball Four never gets bogged down in such tedium thanks to Bouton’s storytelling ability and the many characters and events that he encounters. You also gain the understanding that such little moments, a funny tale or bit of gossip shared in the bullpen, are essential in alleviating the sameness of a season for the players themselves.

Although it is an immensely funny book in its own right, the controversy it caused when first published has become part of the whole Ball Four experience. One of the benefits of this ‘Twentieth Anniversary edition’ is that you get to read ‘Ball Five’ and ‘Ball Six’, Bouton’s epilogues from 1980 and 1990 which partly explain the reaction to the book and the way he has been treated as a result.

It’s amazing to read how Bowie Kuhn, the MLB Commissioner when Ball Four was published, literally tried to make Bouton sign a document stating that book was “a bunch of lies”. It’s frankly sad to read the way Bouton was ostracised by many within the game, barred from attending Oldtimers’ day at Yankee stadium and either verbally abused or pointedly ignored. Players on the San Diego Padres’s roster even burned a copy of the book and left the charred remains for Bouton to discover in the clubhouse.

Did it deserve such a response? Well, simply revealing details from the inner sanctum of MLB was enough to draw the ire of many, but Bouton certainly didn’t avoid talking about topics that painted those mentioned in a less than perfect light.

MLB didn’t need the managerial techniques of Pilots’ manager, Joe Schultz, to be summed up by his rallying cry of “pound that Budweiser” – Schultz certainly didn’t need it because he probably had people shouting it at him every day until he died in 1996. MLB certainly didn’t want Bouton to expose the rampant use of ‘greenies’ or to reveal the cheating ways of baseball gods such as Whitey Ford, who would surreptitiously gouge and muddy the ball.

The owners would have been aghast to read claims that they were less than honest when it came to dealing with players in the days of the reserve clause. And many a ballplayer would have been subjected to an inquisition from their partner(s!) thanks to Bouton’s many descriptions of their favourite pastime: chasing women (whether sleeping with air stewardesses or so-called ‘Baseball Annies’, or simply “beaver shooting” – a gloriously distasteful phrase liable to incite sniggers from any male teenager).

But of course, all the above are exactly what made reading Ball Four in 1970 such a hoot, as they still do today.

You need to own a copy of Ball Four for three main reasons. Firstly, it is an invaluable insight into what life was like for Major Leaguers at the time. Secondly, thanks to the extraordinary storm it caused, it is an important book for any new baseball fan to read. And finally, it is incredibly funny. This is not a book you will read once and put back up on the shelf to gather dust before finding its way to a charity shop years later. Several times over the course of an MLB season, something will happen that brings an incident from Ball Four to mind and soon you will be devouring the pages once again.

Nothing short of an essential purchase for any baseball fan.

Have you read “Ball Four”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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Joe March 19, 2008 - 9:53 pm

There are many books for which such a positive review would inevitably take something away from the enjoyment of new readers – how could their expectations be met after such unrelenting praise? But Ball Four contains such devastating wit that – even taken outside of its context of controversy – there is little danger of this happening.

I remember finishing the book off in an airport, waiting to fly home, and being happy when a delay was announced, as I didn’t want to have to stop reading to board the plane.

This is as essential as they come for anyone interested in learning more about the Major Leagues.

Mark March 19, 2008 - 11:19 pm

As a fairly new convert to baseball (long time NFL fan), I’m always looking for book recommendations. I’ve overlooked Ball Four as I wasn’t really sure how relevant it would be – I know very little about the game in that era. However, on the strenth of your review (and others on amazon) then I think I’ll have to order it. I thought Moneyball was sensational, as a statistical buff, some of the ideas in that book really struck a chord with me and I find the whole Sabermetrics subject fascinating. I also enjoyed Fantasyland and the Stephen King book about the Red Sox (I think it was called Faith Rewarded). I’ve also recently received the 2008 Baseball Prospectus which I think is excellent.

I’m interested in any further recommendations to further my baseball knowledge… any thoughts?

Matt Smith March 20, 2008 - 7:09 am

Hi Mark

Firstly, I’m sure you won’t regret buying Ball Four. As Joe states above, it’s one of the few books that can live up to the hype that has built up around it.

I’ll have to get around to reviewing Fantasyland; that’s another book that makes you go back and re-read it time and again.

As for further recommendations for a statistical buff, the three themed books written by Baseball Prospectus (Mind Game, Baseball Between the Numbers, It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over) are all excellent. ‘Between the Numbers’ is probably the best complete overview of modern advanced statistical research. ‘It Ain’t Over’ has also just come out in paperback.

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is still the best stat/historical book, even though it hasn’t been updated since 2001. James’ other books are all great buys for a stat-minded fan (he has a new one out called The Bill James Goldmine which is getting good reviews).

Finally, Alan Schwarz’s “The Numbers Game” is an excellent tour around the history of baseball’s relationship with statistics (and vice versa). Search through the book reviews on here and you’ll find one on this book.

Joe March 20, 2008 - 1:18 pm

Hi Mark,

I would agree with Matt’s recommendations of “The Numbers Game” and “Baseball Between the Numbers”. The former wil give you most of what you need to know about the history of statistical analysis (and a fascinating history it is, although a fair portion of it you will have already learned about in the formidable “Moneyball”). The latter covers many of the cutting-edge concepts in sabermetric analysis.

Importantly for baseball fans in Britain, and as Matt discusses in his review, “The Numbers Game” provides an excellent overview of the massive contribution that the Exeter-born Henry Chadwick made to baseball.

The Stephen King book that you mention is called “Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season”, the other diehard fan being Stewart O’Nan. Their contrasting writing styles make for a very addictive joint diary.

The next two books on my own reading list are “Fantasyland” and “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball”.

Mark March 21, 2008 - 7:06 pm

Thanks guys. I’ve just started reading Alan Schwartz’s “The Numbers Game” actually and “Baseball Between the Numbers” is another on my “to do” list.

I’m also reading Michael “Moneyball” Lewis’ superb book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” which is an amazing story about a young high school and later college football player. Not Baseball I know but if you liked Moneyball and have only a passing interest in Football, I’m sure you’ll love it. Michael is such a superb writer.

So here’s a tough one… anyone care to name their top 3 baseball books?

Keep up the good work with the blog Matt. I visit virtually every day and always enjoy reading.

Matt Smith March 22, 2008 - 10:40 am

Thanks for your continued support Mark.

My 3 favourite baseball books? That probably changes fairly regularly! Right now I would go for:

Boys of Summer – a classic, and rightfully so.

Glory of Their Times – another classic, but it’s high on my list because I put off buying it for a quite a while, unsure whether it would really be my thing, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading it.

The Final Season by Tom Stanton – Another personal favourite, partly because it was a bit of an impulse buy from Amazon.

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Joe Cooter July 23, 2008 - 4:40 pm

A similar book to Bouton’s “Ball Four” would be “The Bronx Zoo” By Peter Golenback and Sparky Lyle, which cronicles the Yankees 1978 season both on and off the field and goes into detail about the choas which surrounded the ball club at the time. Lyle openly cronicles the fued between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson, the fued between Billy Martin and the owner George Stienbrenner, as well as his own contract demands after the Yankees replaced him with Goose Gossage. Events covered included the Boston Masacre where the Yankees came into Boston trailing by 4 games in the standings and left tied. The book also covers the sometimes stormy relationship Players have with the press as Lyle complains about the New York Post’s Henry HEches writing a story claiming a double standard after Lyle left a game and went home, in that Same game Reggie Jackson openly defies Billy Martin by intentionally bunting after Martin told him not too. Lyle was upset because Heche implied that racism was involved.

Matt Smith July 23, 2008 - 6:56 pm

Thanks for the recommendation Joe. I’ll add it to my list.

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[…] Bouton’s Ball Four is generally considered to be the first book that showed fans the real lives that ballplayers […]


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